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Why comms during the coronavirus outbreak should embrace the information lag, not blame it

The global response to the coronavirus outbreak once again highlights the power and importance of effective communications. So far, the spread of information around Covid-19 has stimulated all the usual reactions associated with major epidemics; fear, panic and confusion, and an understandable thirst for the facts. The latter is the toughest challenge. 

In fast-paced outbreaks dominated by ‘unknowns’, uncovering the facts – let alone communicating them – is a hostage to science. There’s a real need for patience as we wait for the evidence-base to build – but as disease spreads and uncertainty grows, patience is often in short supply. The world wants immediate answers, but the story won’t wait for the science to catch up. 

Our desire for instant information – and 24-hour media’s determination to provide it – invariably leads to gaps being filled by guesswork and headlines based on opinion rather than fact. In week six of the outbreak, global media warned that Covid-19 could infect 60% of the world’s population, kill 45 million people and pose a bigger threat than terrorism. It’s no wonder the Wold Health Organisation (WHO) urged commentators to stop ‘throwing around figures that have no scientific basis’. But the message is already out there. 

Unfortunately, powerful communication doesn’t discriminate between truth and fake news. As the saying goes, a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. New research, supported by Public Health England, doubles down on the dangers, showing that misinformation during disease outbreaks can cost lives; bad advice can circulate quickly, changing human behaviour and persuading people to take greater risks. It’s great to see that major tech companies – including Google, Facebook and Twitter – are working together with the WHO to figure out ways to stop the spread of misinformation about coronavirus. Collaboration like this is vital.

We know from our experiences with Ebola and Zika that pandemic communications are notoriously difficult. Yet public health information is so much more than an obligation; when it comes to preventing the spread of disease, it’s a critical part of the solution too. We have a responsibility to get it right.

The biggest challenge is the lag in information; science doesn’t form overnight, but the need to reassure is immediate. Responses rely on methodical research and robust data, but that data inevitably takes time to emerge. The early absence of a significant evidence-base leaves policymakers and leaders without meaningful answers, but with a pressing need to say something assured. Many blame the lag for their difficulties in communicating clear solutions. They shouldn’t. The lag isn’t an excuse, it’s a fundamental part of the process – and we need it to get to the truth.

The answer is to drive through the lag with scientifically-grounded health advice and data-led communications based on modelling that tracks the real-world dynamics of the transmission of the disease. It’s why in health communications, where evidence-based messaging is critical, we need to collaborate with the experts.

At WPP Health Practice, we partner with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose mathematical modelling played a pivotal role in Ebola response planning. The model was supported by culturally sensitive interventions and education programmes to combat the spread of disease. It’s a great example of how good modelling can show you where to target communications and help health workers develop localised messaging. 

Public health experts believe that, as the world becomes more crowded, global pandemics are an ever-increasing risk. We may be powerless to stop them happening, but we can do more to prevent their spread. Advances in technology offer signs of encouragement. Just as AI, machine learning and predictive tech are becoming powerful agents of creative communications, they’re also transforming research, helping scientists capture and analyse information faster and better. These capabilities can only enhance our response to public health emergencies. As datasets build more quickly, the lag in information will shorten – though it can never disappear altogether. As patterns emerge, response efforts will be empowered to target resources more efficiently and develop culturally-sensitive communications that satisfy the thirst for reliable information. 

All of which shows the power of collaboration. When it comes to managing public health crises, the combination of great tech, great data and great creative communications can be the transformative force that gives populations the reassurance they need – and helps us combat the spread of disease

Claire Gillis is International chief executive at WPP Health Practice. She tweets on @GillisClaire 

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